5.3 Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology has a respectable history from the early work documented by Coles (1973) to the present day with the annual experimental archaeology conference. It is a useful tool that may be used to assist interpretation at various levels from the analysis of the practicalities of building structures to studies of tool manufacture and use. Experiment also has a valuable role in studies of site formation such as the decay and taphonomy of structures, and post-depositional movement and wear of artefacts.  Experiment can never show precisely how things were done in the past, but it can help archaeologists to understand how they might have taken place. As with the study of ethnographic paralells it helps the archaeologists of the 21st century to step back and broaden their understanding of the range of possibilities in which the archaeological record has come about.

A particularly valuable facet of experimental archaeology is the potential that it offers to broaden the archaeological experience to include the wider community. Some experiments involve many people, others involve just a few individuals, but the value of experiment is that it brings different specialisms and skills to bear upon archaeological interpretation. Builders, flintknappers, boatmen, fishermen and hunters have all potentially vital roles in archaeological experiments relevant to studies of Mesolithic Scotland and the list of potential skills is almost endless.

The value of experiment lies not just in its use of related expertise but also in its use as an interpretive tool. Archaeological sites and finds, particularly those of the Mesolithic, can be difficult to relate to the everyday life of the past. Nothing can beat the practical demonstration of ancient skills, the actual experience of entering a reconstructed building, or the fun of trying something out for oneself. Experiment, in the form of experience, is particularly valuable for children, but also, of course, of great interest to the adult community. It is worth noting that, for experiment to be archaeologically valuable it has to be carefully controlled. This means that very often public interpretation exercises have to take place separately, in a less controlled, experiential environment; they are, nevertheless, valuable.

Recent experiments relevant to Mesolithic Scotland include work on bevel-ended tools by Birch (2003; Birch and Hardy 2009), the reconstruction of a Mesolithic round house by Waddington (2007), the knapping and burning of quartz by Ballin (2008a) and Driscoll (2010) and general experimental, replication and reconstruction work at the former Archaeolink Prehistory Park in Aberdeenshire, which closed in 2011. The full value of experiment as an archaeological tool has yet to be fully embraced in Scotland and recommendations for future work would include increased emphasis on this.

Some ‘experimental’ work to replicate the wear patterns on bevelled pebbles has been done in the past e.g. Mithen (2000), but this has never been carried out with great scientific rigour and have resulted in more questions than answers.

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